She had an uneasy feeling as she inserted the key in the front door. She was almost afraid to go in. The memory of a break-in some years back flashed through her mind. Since then, Irene had maintained the habit of checking all the rooms as soon as she got in, just to be on the safe side. It was a ground floor, one-bedroom flat, so it didn’t take long. She peaked round the kitchen door. Nothing. Then the bathroom door before venturing into the bedroom which was at the back of the house. All clear. There was no sign of any intruders.
Last time it had been kids. They’d climbed over the garden fence and got in through the bedroom window. She wasn’t entirely sure she’d locked it. She wasn’t as careful in those days. She’d never bothered with curtains as there were no houses overlooking hers. All they’d taken was the roller skates that she’d rashly bought in a junk shop once with every intention of using but had never got round to. She hadn’t been sorry to see them go. The kids must have spied the skates through the bedroom window. Good luck to them, she’d thought. They hadn’t taken anything else.
But a break-in was a horrible thing to go through. It made you feel vulnerable, exposed, as if you’d been assaulted almost. The mere thought of someone going through your possessions gave you the creeps. She’d reported the incident to the police who hadn’t been very reassuring. All they’d said was that if someone really wanted to get in, they would. She’d reported it to the housing association and had insisted that they do something to make the premises more secure. All they’d done was fix some unsightly iron bars across the back door. It had made it feel like living in a prison. And it wasn’t going to fool any self-respecting burglars. If anything, it would attract them. They’d think she had something worth stealing.
Having reassured herself the coast was clear, she sat down to a cup of tea to steady her nerves. It usually did the job. She would leave the unpacking until later. Shopping was getting to be a chore. Everything was getting to be a chore. She wasn’t on a bus route, and it was a twenty-minute walk to the shops. Years ago, she’d cycle to the supermarket and bring everything back in panniers. Now she had to walk, lugging the heavy bags home. Eventually, after her daughter had kept going on about it, she’d succumbed to buying a shopping trolley.
‘Everybody uses them,’ Mary said. ‘Not only old people.’
‘Thanks a lot,’ Irene replied. ‘Haven’t you heard that sixty is the new forty?’
‘If you say so,’ said Mary. ‘I’m only trying to be helpful. Anyway, you’re sixty-five.’
‘It’s just a figure of speech,’ she retorted. She’d hated to admit it, but the shopping trolley had been a godsend.
‘Honestly, mum, I don’t know why you insist on living in London,’ her daughter said one day. ‘It would be so much easier if you came to live near us in the countryside. You’d love it there. You could go for walks and to coffee mornings. There’s a Knit and Natter group. There’s no shortage of things to do for retired people.’
‘But I’m happy living in London,’ she said. ‘I’ve always lived here. It’s my home.’
When Mary and the kids had first moved out to Essex, Irene had still been working. There had been no question of her moving then. Besides she was convinced that Mary would soon tire of country life. They were Hackney folk after all, born and bred. It was in their blood. But, contrary to expectation, Mary had loved living in the wilds of Essex and rarely visited the capital. It was too crowded and polluted, she always said.
So, it was Irene who visited them at weekends. At least that way she got to see the grandkids. When she’d been fit and healthy, it had been a welcome retreat away from the stresses of teaching. Now she was retired and less fit, and she could have done with the family around a bit more. And what with all the strikes, she’d practically given up visiting them.
But there was no way she was going to give up on her London life. Not for anything. Not when you had all that the culture and free entertainment on your doorstep. Once she’d got her Freedom Pass, there had been no stopping her. In summer there were music concerts and open-air theatrical productions along the South Bank. In winter she could go to the National Theatre or the National Portrait Gallery and sit all afternoon in the foyer, listening to music for nothing and save on heating. There were any number of art galleries you could get into without paying a penny. No. She could never give up her London life.
She had been affected by the cost-of-living crisis. Who hadn’t? Everyone was struggling to pay the bills, no matter where they lived. Before the gas and electricity prices had shot up, due to the war in Ukraine, she had managed to keep on top of things. Then things had started to slip. There was no way she was telling Mary about it. She’d only start nagging about her moving to the country again. But the white envelopes letters had started to pile up on the doormat. Presages of doom, she like to call them. She kept meaning to set time aside to deal with them but somehow or other that time never came.
Before she knew it, she’d nodded off. She was awoken by a loud, tapping sound coming from downstairs. She only ever went into the basement to store unneeded items, suitcases and the like. It was the one place she’d forgotten to check. There was somebody down there. She crept along the passageway to the basement door. It was slightly ajar, so she quickly slammed it shut and bolted it from the outside. Whoever was down there could jolly well stay there. Then she dialled emergency services.
‘There’s an intruder in my basement,’ she explained to the police officer on duty. ‘I need help. Come quickly.’
‘What do you mean by locking me down here, lady?’ the intruder was shouting. ‘Let me out or I’ll get the police onto you.’
‘Don’t you worry,’ Irene shouted back. ‘The police station is just round the corner. They are already on their way.’
‘How was I to know he was sent by the electricity company to install a pre-payment metre?’ she pleaded to her daughter afterwards.
About the author
Jenny Palmer writes short stories, poetry, memoir and family history. Her stories are on the Cafelit website. Her collection 'Keepsake and other stories,' published by Bridge House, 2018, is available on Amazon. Her latest book 'Witches, Quakers and Nonconformists,' 2022, is sold at the Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford.
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